Humour and Classical Music: 16. Morecambe and Wise
by David Barker

From the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, mainstream British comedy was dominated by two “old school” duos: Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies. I say “old school” because some of their comedy wouldn’t pass PC filters today.

Both duos evolved out of the British music hall tradition, so music was always a substantial part of their acts and TV shows, though more Gilbert & Sullivan than Beethoven. While classical music featured more in The Two Ronnies, who I shall consider in the next article, one of Morecambe and Wise’s best-loved sketches has it front and centre.

Eric Morecambe (1926-1984, born Eric Bartholomew in the town of Morecambe) and Ernie Wise (1925-1999, Ernest Wiseman) first met in 1940, whilst performing in a revue Youth Takes a Bow staged by the great comedy impresario Jack Hylton. They formed their comedy duo a year later on the advice of Morecambe’s mother. They made their name in variety theatres, including the (in)famous Windmill Theatre, and then on radio before moving across to TV. Their first show on the new medium, Running Wild (1954), wasn’t a success and yielded the following review “Definition of the week: TV set – the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise”. In 1968, they returned to the BBC with a new writer, Eddie Braben, and their eponymously named show which ran until 1983, the last six years on ITV.

Their Christmas shows were an institution on British TV for more than a decade and it is from the 1971 special that comes the sketch that is considered one of their greatest, and the reason they appear in this series of articles. Such was their success and influence that they attracted a stellar group of guests, including Cliff Richard, Elton John, Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, and for the 1971 Christmas Special, André Previn, or as he was introduced by Wise, Andrew Preview.

Previn at the time was chief conductor of the LSO, and his involvement in the program was facilitated by John Culshaw, the Decca record producer best known for his work on the Solti Ring Cycle. The sticking point was the length of time that Previn would be required. When producer John Ammonds asked to have Previn for five days, his agent just laughed. Negotiations got it down to three days, but the two stars, both perfectionists and workaholics, were concerned this wouldn’t be enough, given Previn’s lack of experience in this type of performance. After the first day’s rehearsal, their concerns were mostly mollified, but then Previn didn’t appear on the second day. His mother had taken ill and he had flown to America to be with her. He returned the following day, re-reading the script in the back of the car to the studios. There is a myth about the Previn sketch that he only read the script for the first time at this point, but that isn’t the case.

Another story about the sketch (that is true) and how close it came to not happening was told by John Ammonds. Even after securing Previn’s time, he was still a little unsure as to whether the conductor would be out of his depth, matching wits and, more importantly, comedic timing with Morecambe and Wise. So Ammonds and colleagues visited Previn at his house in the English countryside, ostensibly to finalise contractual arrangements, but mainly hoping to get a sense of whether Previn had an aptitude for comedy. Things didn’t start out well; Previn was very polite, but serious. At one point during their conversation, Previn’s then wife, actress Mia Farrow, stormed into the house, and ignoring the presence of the visitors, proceeded to resume an argument with Previn. In Ammonds’s words “she launched into this really angry tirade, a real verbal hairdryer of an attack on him, with all kinds of expletives flying out of her mouth”. She then stormed back out again, and into the embarrassed silence, Previn turned to his guests and said with a straight face, “Gentlemen: the lady wife”. Everyone fell about laughing, and Ammonds knew he had the right person for the sketch.

And the rest is history. The recording went brilliantly; early on, after one particular exchange between Wise and Previn, Morecambe cries out “POW! He’s in! I like him! I LIKE him!” (and this remained in the final edit).

Now many of you reading this will be very familiar with the sketch, and it would totally ruin it were I to painstakingly go through it line by line. However, let me give you a brief precis. Previn has been engaged, or so he believes, to conduct Yehudi Menuhin playing the Mendelssohn concerto. But Menuhin is “unavailable”, and instead, it is Eric Morecambe to play the Grieg Piano Concerto. The banter while Previn is convinced to stay is wonderful (Morecambe claims to be one of the few to have fished off the end of Henry Wood Promenade), and there are the inevitable recurring M&W lines, such as “Look at me when I’m talking to you”. Once Previn agrees to see for himself whether Morecambe can play the Grieg, the curtain opens to reveal the orchestra (“I’ve seen better bands on a cigar”). To Previn’s amazement, the Grieg is a special arrangement (“not too heavy on the banjos in the second movement”) with a longer orchestral introduction, which has been inserted to allow for a wonderful sequence where Morecambe fails to get to the piano in time for his entry. Once that is resolved, and Morecambe does begin playing, it is recognisably Grieg, but in a strange syncopated music-hall form. Previn is understandably flabbergasted, and demonstrates how it should be played. Morecambe dismisses it as “rubbish”, and Previn immediately plays it Morecambe style. I think it is telling that as the audience applauds, so does Eric Morecambe, clearly showing how impressed he was by Previn’s performance.

There are a number of instances of the sketch on YouTube and elsewhere, but as before with material of this vintage, I am unsure of the copyright status, so simply Google “morecambe wise previn” and make sure you watch the full almost thirteen minute version (there are some abbreviated ones).